The Journey

Breaking the Stigma
By Natalie Ervin

Julie MacDonald leaves her minimum-wage job at 5 p.m. She is handed a full day's earnings in cash and is ready to pay the bills. A support group of women at Christ Kitchen surround her; their words of encouragement guiding her through each new decision and obstacle she will face. Not only has she found a way to earn money, but she has finally found herself.

"I didn't get to experience my youth," MacDonald said. "It was always survival."

Like many women living in poverty, MacDonald survives each day with three different debilitating mental illnesses and the haunting past of her abusive childhood. But with the help of medication, counseling, and the support of these women, she is finally able to make it to work and take steps towards independence and recovery.

Christ Kitchen is a place where MacDonald can receive support for her mental illness and receive a day's wage when going home. The organization sells 35 different food products and made a total of $171,000 in 2008. Eighty percent of the profit goes towards the wages of the women working.

Christ Kitchen seeks to be a model of self-sufficiency. Not being dependent on funding from donors, the organization helps teach the women that they can earn money for what they produce. For some of them, choosing to work at Christ Kitchen was a choice of life over death.

"Money was a motivating factor that drew them in from depression and bad relationships," said Martinez, founder of Christ Kitchen. "They could leave an abusive relationship for a day if it was for work."

Mental disorders prevent individuals from carrying out the functions of daily life, such as holding a job, keeping up with a household, and even developing relationships, according to the National Coalition of the Homeless. Affordable housing isn't available, nor are there enough community services for people disabled by mental disorders in the United States.

MacDonald grew up in a middle class family where she was emotionally and physically abused. Her alcoholic mother drank constantly to self-medicate terrible mood swings. Her mother neglected her children, leaving MacDonald with the responsibility to learn about the world on her own. Her father, when present, was abusive. As a child, MacDonald learned to distrust her family and learned that the world was a cruel place. No longer in contact with any of her family, MacDonald continues to live an existence reflective of her past.

"Where's the unwritten code?" MacDonald asked. "There are these things in life that I never learned in my childhood."

Her parents didn't instill in her the self-confidence and inner strength she has seen successful women glean from their families. She didn't form healthy attachments with her parents, nor did she learn how to have normal interpersonal relationships. The development of three mental disorders further created a barrier from her achievement of emotional stability and financial independence.

Homelessness is a reality for many women with mental disorders. City streets become like a psychiatric ward, with "psychiatric ghettos" existing in larger cities like New York. A 2005 survey found that almost one-third of the homeless population has a severe mental illness, according to the Treatment Advocacy Center, a Virginia nonprofit organization dedicated to the treatment of severe mental illnesses. A center study also found that 27 percent of patients discharged from a state psychiatric hospital became homeless within six months. Many individuals with less severe mental illnesses may not end up on the street, but will most likely struggle with poverty at some point in their lifetime.

"Mental illness is a recovery process just like substance abuse," MacDonald said. "It requires the same steps to get better, except it never completely goes away."

Becoming a paralegal was one accomplishment that provided MacDonald with financial security. However, she often repeated the same unhealthy cycles, modeling those in which she was raised. She didn't have the necessary skills to escape the psychological prison into which she had been born, and her mental disorders became more debilitating.

Each day, MacDonald felt more emotionally unstable, sometimes breaking into rages of anger and sometimes sitting and staring at the wall for over an hour. She was frozen and her own mind kept her isolated from the rest of the world.

"I was trapped," said MacDonald. "I was so broken I couldn't even function."

After the symptoms of her mental illness became so pervasive, MacDonald was forced to quit her job as a paralegal. She had no outside family support or resources to turn for help. Not being eligible for Medicaid, her three mental illnesses went untreated, and affording a private therapist was impossible. She was left with no choice but to cope with her inner battles discouraged and alone.

"All I could do was look for things that would make me feel better," said MacDonald. "You turn to drugs and sex."

MacDonald attempted to find stability in her life by marrying a man who could financially support her. However, her support system completely diminished after her husband took on the same role of the men in her past. As soon as her husband became abusive, MacDonald became homeless.

Low-income people with mental disorders are at an increased risk of homelessness, according to the National Coalition of the Homeless. Women also have an increased risk of the development of mental disorders such as anxiety and depression according to the National Institute of Mental Health. Many of these women end up in poverty or living on the streets.

MacDonald was left with no choice but to live on the streets of Spokane in order to escape domestic violence. She eventually went to Spokane's Hope House, a shelter founded in response to the 1997 serial murders of homeless women in Spokane. The shelter offers refuge from the dangerous conditions these women face living on the streets. Hope House gave MacDonald the resources she needed to receive treatment for her mental illness and escape domestic violence. Many of the women living at the Hope House carry a bag of belongings with them as they commute to work at Christ Kitchen each day.

MacDonald was eventually referred to Spokane Mental Health where she was diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder, Attention Deficit Disorder, and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. The development of PTSD was caused by the domestic violence attacks and trauma she endured for so many years. She wasn't able to recover from homelessness until her mental disorders were recognized and she could receive treatment for them.

"If you have the wrong diagnosis, you have the wrong treatment," Martinez said.

Throughout her years at Christ Kitchen, Martinez has seen many of the women become prisoners to drugs, alcohol, and abusive relationships. Most of these choices are direct reflections of coping with the environments they grew up in when they were children.

"Culture teaches us about poverty and it's done a bad job," Martinez said. "Most myths aren't true."

Receiving help is difficult for many women when there is such a stigma towards both poverty and mental illness. Society teaches that poverty is a direct result of laziness, but fails to recognize the obstacles these women face, Martinez said. Most resources and support groups are aimed at people in the middle class. Bible studies tend to be academically-structured and don't reach out to people in different walks of life. Women in poverty also have a difficult time relating to other support groups that are available. They can't relate to discussions about everyday issues, such as driving their kids to soccer practice. They feel isolated and misunderstood.

Spokane has many organizations that help treat poverty, homelessness, and mental illness. Organizations like Christ Kitchen create an opportunity for economic stability and psychological change for women in poverty. MacDonald's job at Christ Kitchen gives her a purpose in her life, and the community of women gives her the family she never had.

Unfortunately, the stigma towards mental illness and poverty existing in society is something that prevents many women from seeking the proper treatment. "I want to break the stigma," said MacDonald. "We need mental health help for so many people."